One of the key—but initially unexpected—ways in which Designmatters has engaged our alumni population is by acting as a bridge to professional opportunities for alumni interested in connecting with international development, nonprofit and government agencies. This intersection between the global networks of Designmatters and the sophisticated design expertise of our alumni yields especially prolific and exciting outcomes for the program, and is a model we aim to continue and build into the future.
Over the years, we have discovered that engaging alumni on projects that are either too narrow to be explored in an educational studio, have a timeline too ambitious for an academic calendar, or carry expectations that supersede what can be accomplished during a single term, can be a win/win for both alumni and Designmatters.
Similarly, when Art Center had its premiere “foot in the door” moment with the United Nations and sent a delegation of students, faculty and staff to the College’s first conference as an affiliated NGO (non-governmental agency), we wanted to give filmmaker and recent alumnus, Hoku Uchiyama (FILM ’04), the opportunity to document the event. The result was a thoughtful, 15-minute story about the College’s first time at the UN headquarters in New York, and a touching portrayal of a critical moment for our students and faculty, as designers becoming entrenched and empowered in the growing social action design movement of our time. Hoku, to no one’s surprise, has since launched his professional filmmaking career, directed his second independent feature film, and has received critical acclaim. I often think how lucky we were to have worked with him when he was a fresh graduate, and how meaningful his depiction of Art Center’s engagement with the UN has been to building Designmatters.
I could go on with similar stories, like Graphic Design alumnus William Ismael (GRPH ’07), who upon graduation returned to his native France and, through Designmatters, connected with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at its Paris headquarters to produce a startlingly beautiful series of posters on topics ranging from rights for the physical disabled to education to gender equality. He has continued his engagement by working with UNESCO on many other initiatives.
The Designmatters Fellowship Program, which serves mostly upper term students but which we’ve recently opened up to graduating students as a “ninth term honors” opportunity, has yielded professional relationships for recent alumni as well. Justin Cram (GRPH ’08), the program’s first “ninth termer,” spent four months as a Designmatters Fellow at Doctors Without Borders in New York. Again, it was a win/win situation: Doctors Without Borders was seriously impressed by the contributions of an empathetic and talented designer like Justin, and they offered him an ongoing consultancy contract on their team. The unexpected opportunity to live in New York and be an integral member of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian organization has become a reality for Justin, and we couldn’t be more happy for him.
Robert McLendon (FILM, ’07) is another case study. Robert has collaborated with me to produce several short documentaries for our partners (including Project Concern International, the United Nations Population Fund and others), profiling the design process, challenges and outcomes of sponsored educational studios. Not only has Robert been able to hone his documentary filmmaking skills while enjoying the benefits of working with a full-time producer (and entering these projects into festival and award circuits), these films have themselves become part of the deliverables of our sponsored projects. They allow us to celebrate and share the educational experience and personal transformation of students and faculty who have developed innovative solutions for real-world clients, many of them prominent international aid agencies. Without question, these documentaries have become effective marketing tools in Designmatters’ cultivation of additional sponsors.
It is important to mention, too, that alumni have never minded being paid fairly for their work—a fact that is of primary concern when we are determining whether a project is worthwhile for an Art Center graduate. Beyond that, the opportunity to showcase in their portfolios the outcomes of collaborations with “unusual suspects”—clients like UN agencies and government scientists—is a draw for alumni and helps set them apart in their professional design endeavors.
Over the years, the case studies of these alumni projects have been as varied and exciting to witness as many of the in-classroom projects Mariana and I have developed. Patrick Kiruki, lead designer of the Mpala Project, recently captured the spirit of our program as a whole: “In channeling exceptional creative solutions in solving today’s challenges, it is very evident that no economy or country is independent of another. We are interconnected and depend on one another to solve today’s economic, political and social problems.” I like to think that the “interconnectedness” Patrick speaks of also applies to the Art Center community—our students, faculty and alumni--and to the humanitarian design challenges that can unite us all in a shared purpose, with the goal of making a difference in our world through design.
We look forward to providing the Art Center community with more opportunities for design interventions on an international stage, and to more case studies like these. I anticipate that, in combining our social impact design focus and the leadership of our professional alumni talent, the unexpected is again around the corner.
For questions, comments, ideas and engagement, connect with Designmatters through InCircle.